14 spring practices have come and gone, and the only event left this spring is the 2022 Blue-Gold Spring Game. The Blue and Gold teams will clash at Heinz Field on Saturday, April 9 at 1 p.m.
It’s a big day for all those involved, and while some of Pitt’s starters won’t see much playing time on Saturday, it’s a good look into some of the position battles across the roster (quarterback, linebacker, cornerback) and how the team has progressed this spring.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi said that Pitt’s Thursday practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex Thursday was a solid day of practice, continuing a trend of mostly good days this spring.
To Heinz Field We Go
As Pitt walks out of the locker room and onto the field at Heinz Field Saturday, there will be quite a few new faces — players and coaches — making the rounds for the first time. And Narduzzi just wants to keep level heads and do what needs to be done.
“It’s good for the young guys, it’s good for the coaches to see how we do it,” Narduzzi said. “So, if there’s any adjustments we wanna make going into the fall camp, we can make those. It’s a little bit of both. If it’s a game, we’re gonna play it like a game.”
The 2022 Blue-Gold Spring Game is an important test for everyone on Pitt’s roster, admittedly, some more than others, but at the end of the day, it’s about seeing what Pitt has, who has grown over the last month and a half of spring ball and — most importantly — getting through the game healthy.
“Any time you go to Heinz Field, you just want to see the guys play sharp,” Narduzzi said. “What are we gonna run on offense, what are we gonna run on defense? We’re gonna try to keep it pretty basic. But I want to see our guys execute. I don’t want to see a lot false starts or guys jumping offsides on defense. I just want to see a clean game.”
After Deslin Alexandre was hurt during last season’s spring game, his training thrown off by the unexpected wrench in his plans, Narduzzi doesn’t care what the score at the end of the game is, which team emerges victorious or anything else. Can Pitt play clean football and come away healthy? That’s the goal.
Pre-Snap Penalties Need to be Curbed
What’s one area that Pitt needs to clean up across the board before a Week 1 game against West Virginia in September? Pre-snap penalties.
“We have too many of them right now, too many of them, and I think that comes with a new offense,” Narduzzi said. “Last year we went on 1 all the time, didn’t matter, just trying to snap the ball fast. We’ve got a lot of different cadences, so it’s a learning thing for our guys. It’s a focus thing. They’ll be much better in camp and we’ll work on it all summer because we found it is an issue right now.”
One of the keys for both Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti in the Spring Game, and all of Pitt’s quarterbacks, will be to lead the offense to a mistake-free day. Whether it’s turnovers or pre-snap infractions, that’s something that Narduzzi will have his eye on all Saturday.
While Pitt’s offense under Frank Cignetti Jr. is twice as big as the offense the past three seasons under Mark Whipple, with implenting and integrating still underway, there’s going to be some hiccups. Narduzzi said Kenny Pickett did a good job last season at the helm of Pitt’s offense, and the way he would operate the offense post-snap.
A Lot of New Faces Stepping Up Throughout the Spring
Pitt has new faces ready to contribute at offensive line, tight end, safety, linebacker and more in 2022, and Narduzzi pointed to just a few names who have stood out throughout the spring.
“There are just some players that you go, ‘OK, can play. That are going to help us this year.’ That’s the main thing,” Narduzzi said. “Going into spring ball, you’re like, ‘Who is going to help us?’ I look around and Ryan Baer is going to help us this year. I don’t have any question. Jake Renda’s done some nice things, Khalil Anderson’s done some nice things, P.J. O’Brien is a lot better than he was. Bangally has come out of being just a kind of sometimes player to an every-down linebacker. Solomon DeShields, there were a lot of unknowns from him coming into spring ball, was he a wideout? Was he a linebacker? Is he tough enough to play on defense? We found he’s tough enough and gonna be a really good player for us on defense.”
Baer, a hulking early enrollee, has made waves as he’s figured into the battle to back up Carter Warren in 2022 — as a true freshman. Kamara and DeShields have forced their way into Pitt’s lineup this season, perhaps emerging as the two outside linebacker starters entering the WVU game.
Renda, after putting on 40 pounds over the last year, is the No. 2 option at tight end behind Gavin Bartholomew. O’Brien and Anderson will factor into Pitt’s defensive secondary in 2022.
Pitt’s 2022 roster is loaded with top veterans, but there are a lot of young players who, while they may not start in 2022, they’ll play key reserve roles before stepping into the starting lineup down the line.
How Long Will Slovis and Patti Play, and What is Narduzzi Looking For?
There’s no plan yet on how long Kedon Slovis (Blue team starter) and Nick Patti (Gold team starter) will play on Saturday. That decision lies with the offensive coordinators on both teams, but Narduzzi expects around 20 or so snaps for both.
Of course, with the red, no-contact jerseys on, Slovis and Patti will not be facing serious pressure — with Narduzzi ready to throw his own flags if defenders get within the “halo” surrounding any of his quarterbacks — but it’ll be a good test to see how both perform with a mixture of Pitt’s starters.
While Narduzzi has remained tight-lipped when it’s come to even giving a hint to the quarterback battle this spring, he did outline what he hopes to see from Slovis and Patti Saturday.
“Looking for them to make plays,” Narduzzi said. “Lead the offense, first of all. Those pre-snap infractions, unforced errors, whatever you want to call them, start in the huddle. Getting your guys together and lead that huddle. And then going out there and making plays. We want to see the quarterbacks throw the ball and when they do throw it, accurately, put it where it’s easy to catch.”
Jordan Addison Continues to Win
With a deep wide receiving corps and deep defensive backs room, Pitt battles on the boundaries during every practice. And while it may be a 50-50 battle between the receivers and corners, Narduzzi said Addison wins. A lot.
“Watching him is fun,” Narduzzi said. “… There was a play Tuesday, two minute situation and the offense needed a touchdown, and Jordan Addison is double covered on a fade round. And my man just goes up in between both of them, times it right, snatched it and scored. About the five yard line. And both DBs just looked at each other … looking at each other like, ‘What just happened?'”
It seems there’s no limit to just how good Addison can be in 2022. It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback, Addison is going to feast.
A New Running Back
Justin Cullins, a walk-on running back, was drafted during Wednesday’s Spring Game draft, and it drew loud applause from all those in attendance. But it also raised the question as to just who Cullins was.
“Justin is a walk-on running back,” Narduzzi said. “Wish I could tell you where he’s from. He’s a great kid … I guess you guys saw him yesterday and said, ‘Who is this guy?’ He came in mid-ball, he tried out a couple of years ago, we tried him out two or three times and we had a need — we gad a couple running backs go down.”